deptofspeculationThe title of this novel comes from the return address that the married couple in this wafer thin story uses on correspondence to each other. Like bait, Ms. Offill dangles these wet mice over the reader, and I wonder, did she imagine a public that was eager for these morsels? It is not until late in the book that I realized, or more pointedly, felt, that this was an updated version of Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. In the Offill world there are no drug addicts, drifters, knives in the eye, only a married couple trapped in the gilded cage everyone else calls Brooklyn, NY.

Lorrie Moore says that all writers suffer, and only suffer less when they are writing (she wasn’t the first to make that observation, I’m sure). Ms. Offill is a teacher of creative writing, and must have an MFA, which I myself have been struggling with going out to get. But as James Frey says, write what you want, there is an audience out there for everyone; he never says get an MFA. Then reading MFA vs. NYC, I completely agree with Mr. Frey, and realized that Chad Harbach was trying to tell people to avoid getting an MFA, and you really need to write something compelling. Someone else in MFA vs. NYC pointed out that only one or two writers in a generation write anything worth publishing. With these ingredients in mind, I give you a few words on Ms. Offill’s toxic and delightful novel about the evaporation of a marriage.

I smell Cheever and Updike in these pages, and Dept. of Speculation often reads like “writing”, especially the sections where the wife visits a philosopher, but I quickly pivoted and realized those points of light are gasps of air for this women. She marries a man, the dream, the myth, and in return looks for happiness. In case you were wondering, you don’t marry happiness. You don’t have children to get happiness. You don’t buy anything for happiness. Like democracy, happiness grows out of the ground, and doesn’t have a bar code. Tragedy starts right away, like pipes bursting on a cold winter night; suddenly it is all about surviving. Offill writes wood slivers, and at times you can’t hold the book. Breaking down after infidelity, Mom stares at the dirt in the bathroom, and the whole story comes into focus. The loneliness and permanence a new parent feels when they realize this is forever, parenthood. You might be reminded of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, which travels at high velocity in comparison.    

Offill writes about the man/dad with casual ease, and doesn’t drill down, sadly. Then towards the end when the wife is reading stories from her students, the family finds its farm, and the apple turns towards “the real” and I laughed out loud. It is a frustrating process, but rewarding. I suggest one sitting for this book, as you cannot look away or you will lose the narrative thread, which is like that bouncing ball, which touches your thoughts just before you fall asleep. The ball started somewhere but ended in a different place, but it is where it started that means the most.